A common drawing exercise for art students is to sketch Pablo Picasso’s 1920 Portrait of Igor Stravinsky upside down. With the familiar image flipped, twisting the mind to forego its preconceived notion of the portrait, the lesson is to learn to follow the line.
Da Camera’s upcoming performance Picasso and Music at the Menil Collection may not turn Stravinsky on his head, but it will turn the line from the eye to the ear. With music from Erik Satie, Manuel de Falla and Igor Stravinsky, the concert features works by composers who collaborated with Picasso during his lifetime and whose compositions reflect the modernist impulse to redefine realities.
The concert is in conversation with the Menil Collection’s exhibition Picasso The Line (thru Jan 8). Organized by guest curator Carmen Giménez, it is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on Picasso’s line drawing.
Before the concert and during intermission, audience members can wander through the four-room collection and marvel at Picasso's lesser known works before hearing Stravinsky's famous "Rite of Spring" arranged for two pianos.
“In terms of the line, this is what you hear more with the piano,” says Sarah Rothenberg, artistic and general director of Da Camera of Houston. She will be performing at the piano, joined by mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, violinist Boson Mo and fellow pianists Marilyn Nonken and Timothy Hester.
When planning this visual and aural experience, Rothenberg said she wanted to focus on chamber arrangements—the reduced and uncluttered iterations of much larger projects—to complement and engage with the scale of Picasso’s drawings.
“Orchestral versions are more like big paintings with lots of color. When you hear some of these things on the piano, you notice things about them you didn’t notice before,” Rothenberg told me. “Fantastic harmonies—that’s not something we think about with Stravinsky. We usually think about the rhythm.”
Rhythm is one example of the unconventional artistic dialogue this concert delivers. While harmony may reign during the music, rhythm—fickle artistic crossover that it is—might be the thing that comes to mind when you step into the exhibition during intermission. In her exhibition notes, Giménez refers to Picasso’s “refined rhythm of curves,” a phrase I asked associate curator of the Menil Clare Elliott about.
“Pattern can have a rhythm,” Elliott explains. “You respond to it in similar ways that you do when you hear music, creating this kind of expectation that has been complicated.”
Elliott, who worked closely on the installation, also pointed out a precision unique to this exhibition.
“All of the works are perfectly centered, there’s no tweaking, it’s all mathematically measured out—not every curator does that,” says Elliott.
It’s no secret that artists borrow ideas from one another (Da Camera’s Marcel Proust Project last year emphasized exactly this point), but the payoff of these collaborations come in these beautifully finite differences that arise when one media is held up to another.
As Rothenberg says, Picasso and Stravinsky capture “very different worlds, but new worlds at the same time.”
Picasso and Music | Da Camera of Houston and the Menil Collection